Doug Fraser spent a lot of time on the putting green at Atlantic City Country Club, sometimes practicing but often just fooling around with friends. His father, Leo, former president of the PGA of America, owned the place so the club became like a second home to the Fraser kids. It wasn’t unusual for Doug or his brother, Jim, to see an old man having lunch or puttering around the club. The visitor was in his mid-70s by the mid-1960s, a time when the average man didn’t live past age 68. His clothes were clean but worn funny, something a kid of 12 didn’t understand. Nor could Doug comprehend the man’s jerky ticks, which came and went.
“I saw him out here quite a bit,” Doug said more than a half century after the fact. “He would play golf or just roll some putts and have lunch. I remember one time I was on the putting green and he came over to talk. After a couple of minutes he started telling me about the golf course. He went through every hole at Atlantic City Country Club from the time that he was here (decades earlier), telling me how he played them. Every shot, every hole. He remembered every inch of the place. But then his sister showed up to pick him up and he didn’t recognize her. Mental illness is a strange and terrifying thing. But John McDermott was a good man. Don’t let anybody tell you different.”
He was more than a good man, although that should be enough. John Joseph McDermott Jr., whose family called him J.J. and who at various times went by John, Johnny or Jack, remains the greatest forgotten golfer in American history, a man gifted with enough talent that his records still hold up more than 100 years after he set them and 47 years after his death. As we celebrate the history of American golf with this year’s U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, one of the oldest clubs in the New World, it’s worth knowing that J.J. McDermott remains the youngest winner of the championship and the first native-born American to hoist the U.S. Open trophy. He also is one of only six players to win the championship back to back, a feat that prompted Grantland Rice to eventually write of him: “To our off-side way of thinking John was the greatest golfer that America had ever produced, amateur or professional, when it came to a combination of nerve, coolness and all-around skill from the tee to the green.”
Yet he isn’t even an afterthought in today’s conversations about the greatest players. Most modern golfers, if they’re honest, don’t even recognize his name. The reason for his virtual evaporation from history is tragic and sad. And it is worthy of some modern-day reflection.
J.J. lived his adult life with the voices, carrying them like passengers in the back seat of a speeding mind. He told his sisters about them, and his doctors, but that would come much, much later. In the beginning he tried to figure it out on his own. Some of the voices could be heard by others. His mother’s melodic alto was one. It soared like a white dove during congregational hymns at St. Francis de Sales, a West Philadelphia Catholic church founded in 1890, just one year before John Jr.’s birth. He must have heard her singing there, even before he was born – A Dhia is a Athair is ag triall ort a thagaimid (“God and Father, we walk this earth with you”). St. Francis was nothing like the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, built a quarter-century earlier across the river and a place where a working-class boy from a bustling Irish neighborhood, slight in stature and lean in temperament, could feel the hand of God. While he would visit the Basilica often throughout his life, his faith was never bound to a building. J.J. never missed a Sunday Mass, no matter where he laid his head. Nor was he ever far from the rosary. Confession to an unseen God, even during the fog of a life spent battling the unreal, remained a constant. For the first third of his life, St. Francis de Sales was as convenient a spot as any for a man to talk to the Lord. But as he became a young adult, McDermott realized that he was one of only a few who heard God and others speak back in return.
While he found the voice of his mother, Margaret, as soothing as the sounds of nature, his father, John Sr., had a sterner delivery. A letter carrier who could not quite grasp how the Almighty had chosen a Mac Dairmuid, a “free man” whose forefathers had ruled the hills of Roscommon, to be a mailman, John McDermott Sr. was American, through and through. Gone were the hard Irish R’s from his accent. And his children, J.J., Alice and Gertrude, pledged allegiance every day to the land of opportunity. But it was hard for John Sr. to forget the family’s ancestors, the high kings of Ireland before Cromwell; before the famine that drove so many onto ships or into the ground. Now, the McDermott children, born free on American soil, squeaked by on meager wages.
J.J. was always small and thin; a loner who spent more time talking to stray dogs than to people. Most adults assumed that his size led to his disposition. But no one understood his social awkwardness, his fussy obsessions or the wild swings in his presentation. From an early age, he would meet someone once and assume that, from that moment forward, they were the best of friends. Other times, well into adulthood, he would introduce himself to people he had known his entire life, looking into their eyes as if they were total strangers. As a young man, he might go months wearing clean, pressed clothing with high collars, straight-knotted neckties and shoes shined with dubbin to a unworldly glow. He would sit ramrod straight, chin high so as not to disrupt the presentation of his suits while rubbing his hands down his jacket and trousers to smooth wrinkles only he could see. Then, a week or so later, out of nowhere, he might show up at a social function looking a mess, unkempt and out of sorts, his hair tangled and his clothing at unformed angles. On those occasions he didn’t look inebriated. It was odder than that. He looked like an alien who had attempted to don clothing for the first time with no real idea how the process worked.
As a child, McDermott tested the patience of his Old Testament-following father. So it was no surprise that, around age 6, J.J. started spending more time at his maternal grandfather’s farm. It wasn’t far away. John Sr. and Margaret lived at 1234 South 50th Street, and Margaret’s father was a couple of streets over and a few blocks down. No one spoke of J.J.’s visits as needed space between two headstrong males but the boy and his sisters would later recall those visits as gifts from God. The timing would certainly shape J.J.’s future. Next door to Grandpa’s orchard, at the corner of 52nd Street and Chester Avenue, a golf course, nine holes, had opened not more than a year before.
The Belmont Golf Association, made up of a group of industrialists, lawyers and real estate men, had spun off from the Belmont Cricket Club in 1896 and joined in a loose coalition with Philadelphia Country Club, Merion Cricket Club and the Philadelphia Cricket Club to form the Golf Association of Philadelphia. It was the first such association of its kind. And it seemed silly. At the time, the United States Golf Association was just two years old. A regional association appeared contradictory if not downright hostile to the USGA, especially since the founders of the national organization were trying to codify their mission beyond identifying the best amateur in the country. Early in 1894, Newport Country Club in Rhode Island and St. Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers, N.Y., both held tournaments they called “national amateur championships.” Members at each club, believing that their sphere of influence extended from sea to shining sea, declared their winner the best amateur in America. The USGA was created to stop that nonsense. The new association would host a true national amateur championship in 1895 and every peacetime year thereafter. But the association’s function beyond that remained a mystery. So what on earth would a Golf Association of Philadelphia do? The 1895 Amateur Championship of the United States had been a rousing success, so much so that the organization held a United States Open the day after, throwing a bone to the poor golf pros. Would the Philadelphia cabal try to upset or upstage those championships? If so, how? And why?
Six-year-old J.J. knew far more about chasing butterflies than he did about club politics in 1897. In fact, all he knew was that land that once had been apple trees now was mown grass with sticks in the ground, sand boxes and flags. The Belmont Golf Association course measured 3,070 yards and was a par-36½. The golfers had left standing an old barn, one that had once been the dwelling place for a Lenape chief named Aronimink, an odd name but one the BGA members eventually adopted and took with them to another site outside of town. Again, young McDermott couldn’t care less why they did what they did. He was just thrilled that the barn was still up. And he was fascinated by the game those people played. Hitting a ball with the wooden clubs struck him like a moving piece of art. The beauty and choreography of the motion; the calm and quiet of it; the organization. The cause and effect: Something inside him longed for this kind of activity. In almost no time, J.J. had set up a makeshift course in his grandfather’s orchard using tin cans, tree branches and small apples. He studied what he saw and mimicked the motions of the players passing through.
At age 9 and still the size of most 7-year-olds, a precocious McDermott marched over to the club, which was, by that point, being called Aronimink, and announced that he would be the best caddie they had ever allowed on the premises. Given the Lord of the Flies nature of most caddie pens, he was lucky that he didn’t get pummeled and thrown onto the road. But Walter Reynolds, the club’s professional, took a liking to the kid. He was polite and earnest but also different enough to catch a busy adult’s eye. J.J. could be painfully shy one day, so much so that when other caddies would wander over to his homemade course in the orchard (which expanded in the following years), McDermott simply would turn and walk away without saying a word. But the next day, he would be so supremely confident that he would insist on looping for the most demanding player at the club. And he would do a great job. Reynolds gave McDermott a few golf lessons and taught him how to build clubs from strips of hickory, blocks of persimmon, strips of leather, a few nails and some twine. When Reynolds left Aronimink, his successor, Bill Byrne, mentored McDermott, giving additional tips and helping him develop as a player.
In 1906, when J.J. was 15, John Sr. told his son that it was time to get out and learn a trade. School was well and good (J.J. was a solid student) but life was hard. McDermott followed his father’s instructions in part. He quit school. But instead of heading to the dockyard or the mill, he moved across the river to Camden, N.J., where he took a job as the assistant pro at Camden Country Club. While there, McDermott met another Philadelphia pro named Tom McNamara who helped him hone his game.
Physically, McDermott would have been compared to players of the next generation like Jack Burke Jr. and Ben Hogan. He was listed in programs and newspapers as standing 5 feet 8 but those who saw him later in life surmised that 5-6 or 5-7 would be a generous guess. He never weighed more than 130 pounds. But his hands were enormous and powerful. Because of that, he had one of the flattest swings of the era, setting his wrists early and rotating the way pros did in the 1940s and ’50s. Because he made his own clubs, he built up his grips with extra strips of leather. They were the largest grips anyone had seen at the time and almost everyone who played with McDermott commented on them. The way he put those enormous hands on the club also was quite different. At a time when Harry Vardon was revolutionizing the game with his overlapping Vardon grip (a commonly used grip today), McDermott went with a double-overlap, putting the pinky and ring finger of his right hand over the index and middle finger of left. To the knowledge of most golf historians that grip has only been used successfully by two players: J.J. McDermott and Jim Furyk, both men who built their own swings based on their specific strengths and weaknesses.
McDermott’s strengths were his hand speed, his timing and his ability to cover the golf ball when no one knew what that meant. Unlike many players of the day who attempted to release the club and rotate the face through impact, McDermott had a strong grip, an open stance with the ball played closer to his right foot than most pros of his day. From there, he held the face square as long as possible and chased the shot through impact with his shoulders. It is a move many pros work on today. Because the clubface stayed squarer longer, he was incredibly accurate. Stories abound of McDermott using newspapers as practice targets so that he could simply fold the corners of the newspaper and collect most if not all of his golf balls.
And practice he did. McDermott would arrive every morning (except Sunday, which was reserved for Mass) before sunrise and work on his game before going into the shop. Then he would play later with members or other professionals, almost all of whom marveled at his speed and consistency through impact.
His putting style was also ahead of its time, although not by much. Most professionals who learned the game in the winds of England and Scotland took wide stances and bent over a good bit when they putted. McDermott putted with his feet and knees together, bending over no more than he would if he was hitting a mashie. Two decades later, Bobby Jones would be recognized as the greatest athlete in the world using the putting stance McDermott created in the early 1900s.